Advocates say solitary for mentally ill worsens their condition. Department of Correction says safety of visitors, staff and other inmates is primary consideration for solitary confinement.

The Community Legal Aid Society Inc., with backing from the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Delaware, has filed a lawsuit on behalf of inmates with mental illnesses in solitary confinement in Delaware prisons.

Filed today in U.S. District Court in Wilmington, the suit says solitary confinement for those with mental illnesses violates both the U.S. Constitution and the State of Delaware Constitution because the treatment makes mental illness worse and can cause paranoia, self-mutilation, and suicide attempts.

The defendant named in the suit is Department of Correction Commissioner Robert Coupe.

CLASI is co-counsel in the suit along with the ACLU Foundation of Delaware and Pepper Hamilton LLP.

"At the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, people with mental illnesses have been warehoused in solitary confinement for years on end, living in eight-foot by 11-foot cells for 23 to 24 hours a day," said Daniel Atkins, executive director of CLASI, in a press release. "They are isolated from almost all contact with other human beings and receive virtually no meaningful mental health treatment."

Atkins said the vast majority of these inmates will be released back into the community.

"How are these individuals or the community at large served by such cruel and destructive policies and practices?” he said.

According to a press release from the ACLU of Delaware, approximately 300 prisoners are held in the Secure Housing Unit of the Vaughn Correctional Center northeast of Smyrna, including 100 listed on DOC’s mental health roster, more than 60 of whom have serious mental illnesses.

Isolation under these conditions exacerbates the symptoms of mental illness, according to the ACLU, and can result in behaviors such as screaming obscenities, throwing feces, banging body parts against the cell walls, and other self-inflicted injuries. Prison officials often regard these manifestations of disease as rule infractions and punish these prisoners with more time in solitary confinement and more limitations on privileges such a phone time, family visits, and the opportunity to purchase a television or radio, the ACLU said.

In the Secure Housing Unit, most prisoners are permitted to leave their cells for only one hour, three days a week: 45 minutes in a wire enclosure to “exercise” without equipment and 15 minutes to shower, according to the ACLU. They can’t work, participate in education or rehabilitation programs, or attend religious services, even though such activities have been shown to improve mental health and wellbeing, the ACLU said.

“Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy recently recognized that solitary confinement can bring you to the edge of madness, perhaps madness itself,” said ACLU legal director Richard Morse. “It is time to put an end to a system that holds mentally ill people under conditions that make them worse. This lawsuit aims to do that,” Morse said.

The lawsuit argues that the current solitary conditions under which inmates with mental illnesses are housed by the DOC is a violation of the Eight Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, and Article I, Section 11 of the State of Delaware Constitution, which prohibits cruel punishments and requires that jails have a proper regard for the health of the prisoners.

The suit asks that the court mandate appropriate relief in order to stop the alleged constitutional violations.

Department of Correction Responds

Delaware Department of Correction Chief of Media Relations Jason Miller issued a statement today in response to the lawsuit.

"Public safety and security of Department of Correction (DOC) staff, inmates, visitors and our facilities is and must be the department’s first priority," Miller said.

"At the same time, the DOC shares a concern about the effects of restrictive housing on inmates and their reentry to society and is focused on meeting the treatment, programming and other needs of inmates with serious mental illness," he said. "To maintain safety and security, the DOC uses a verified classification system when housing prisoners in one of several custody levels. That system uses objective criteria to assess inmates’ needs and risks prior to assigning them to housing units. Inmates who pose the most serious risks may be placed in restrictive housing with the opportunity, based upon good behavior, to transition to less restrictive housing. Restrictive housing also is used for other specific purposes outside of the classification system, such as short-term administrative disciplinary segregation and protective custody."

Miller said the vast majority of the inmates housed in the Vaughn Correctional Center’s 300-bed Secure Housing Unit (SHU) have been classified through DOC’s objective classification system to maximum security and pose serious risks to the safety and security of the institution.  As part of the DOC’s efforts to work with CLASI and the ACLU to address their concerns, the DOC conducted a review of the maximum security population in SHU. 

Within that population, approximately 100 inmates reflected varying degrees of identified mental health needs, and of those 100, approximately 60 inmates were diagnosed with serious mental illness. Most of those inmates have been transferred to the new specialized 50-bed Secured Transition Unit. 

Most of the inmates housed in the SHU have the ability to flow down to less restrictive housing, including, potentially, to the general inmate population, Miller said.

"Over the last several months the DOC has actively engaged with the ACLU and CLASI to discuss inmates with serious mental illness and treatment, programming, socialization and recreation opportunities for them," Miller said. "The DOC has invited the ACLU and CLASI into all of our prison facilities, granted them access to hundreds of inmates and, at their request, facilitated interviews with dozens of inmates.  The DOC has expanded its services for inmates with serious mental illness, including the creation of a Secured Transition Unit that provides structured programs, unstructured activity, and access to treatment and psychiatric services. We will continue to expand those services while ensuring public safety as our top priority."

In a further reflection of the department's commitment to this issue, Miller said the DOC has joined with legislative leaders in calling for the commissioning of an impartial expert to examine existing policies, facilities, and services and make recommendations by the end of this year based on best-practices concerning the use of restrictive housing in Delaware correctional facilities.

Department of Correction Commissioner Robert Coupe said, “We believe that continuing the constructive engagement among all interested parties that is resulting in tangible reform is the best way forward, instead of protracted litigation that would divert limited state funds from programs and treatment to attorneys and legal fees.”